Badiou’s Saint Paul

May 18, 2010

Kvond’s remarks in this conversation at Carl’s prompted me to read Badiou’s Saint Paul. I’ve not read much Badiou before. A few unsystematic remarks, unrelated to the original conversation.

1) Badiou appears to use the word ‘secular’ as an honorific, its meaning more or less unconnected to the term’s usual content. For example:

This de-dialectization of the Christ-event allows us to extract a formal, wholly secularized conception of grace from the mythological core. Everything hinges on knowing whether an ordinary existence, breaking with time’s cruel routine, encounters the material chance of serving a truth, thereby becoming, through subjective division and beyond the human animal’s survival imperatives, an immortal. (p. 66)

This set of ideas is in no sense secular.

2) A fair bit of Badiou’s work’s appeal in the English-language Theory space seems to be connected to its identification as communist and/or militant. Yet one of the main teachings that Badiou extracts from Paul is that:

1. Faith is what saves us, not works. (p. 75)

Which is a notably non-praxis(-in-the-political-sense)-oriented maxim.

3) Badiou distinguishes his discourse (of revelation, or fidelity to the event) from mysticism or miraculism (what he calls “obscurantism”, p. 52). But this differentiation is a matter of self-consistency: mystical discourse is, Badiou believes, self-undermining, because the discursive expression of the unutterable necessarily relapses into the symbolic discourse of prophecy (“Jewish discourse”, p. 53). Badiou’s differentiation of his own discourse from that of mysticism is therefore akin to Wittgenstein’s “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” – it is not a rejection of mystical experience or of religion based on such an experience, but rather the opposite: an attempt to make one’s faithful words adequate to that mystical vision.

4) Badiou is one of a number of figures in recent continental philosophy who use the terms “immanence” or “radical immanence” to mean something much closer to “transcendence” or “radical transcendence” (c.f. my remarks on Ray Brassier, the book’s translator, here). The Badiouian-Pauline Christ-event is transcendent in a strong sense – it ruptures the world of everyday experience, and permits access to a Real beyond the empirical that cannot even be denoted by our usual philosophical or ordinary-language discursive resources. Yet because Badiou’s Paul does not draw a strong boundary between Christ the Son and a radically transcendent God the Father, Badiou argues that the Christ-event is an “immanentization”, a “condition of immanence” (p. 70). This is not, in my judgement, a helpful or particularly coherent philosophical position.

5) Badiou’s apologetics for Paul’s “pronouncements about women” are amusingly at odds with the stated aims of the book.

But all things considered, there is something absurd about bringing him to trial before the tribunal of contemporary feminism. The only question worth asking is whether Paul, given the conditions of his time, is a progressive or a reactionary so far as the status of women is concerned. (p. 104)

No matter that the meaning of Paul’s work is, for Badiou, the foundation of universalism; what matters when it comes to feminist critiques of Paul are “the conditions of his time”.

This is not the only way in which Badiou aims to rebut the feminist critique of Paul. Having explained that Paul reverses the inegalitarian discourses he participates in by the method of rhetorical symmetrization, Badiou remarks:

Take marriage, for example. Obviously, Paul begins with the inegalitarian rule “I give charge… that the wife should not separate from her husband” (Cor.I.7.10). But he immediately adds “and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (Cor.I.7.10).

Because neither party should break this legal relation, Paul’s discourse is emancipatory!

A little later:

…Paul does declare that “the chief of every man is Christ, the chief of a woman is her husband, and the chief of Christ is God” (Cor.I.II.13)…. As expected, the basis is provided by the narrative in Genesis: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (8). The question seems settled: Paul proposes a solid religious basis for the subjugation of women. Well actually, not at all. Three lines further down, a vigorous “nevertheless” (plēn) introduces the subsequent symmetrization, which, opportunely reminding us that every man is born of a woman, leads the whole of this inegalitarian edifice back to an essential equality: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman” (Cor.I.II.II). (p. 106)

So – on the one hand “the chief of a woman is her husband”; on the other hand “man is now born of woman”. Glad we’ve established an essential equality there.

Such passages should perhaps make us wonder if Badiou’s Pauline “universalism” in fact represents (as the “culturalist” theorists Badiou is concerned to refute might suggest) the interests and preoccupations of a quite specific cultural space.

6) Although Badiou’s conceptual apparatus is based on an opposition between the empirical world and the evental rupture of that world, the most problematic passages of Saint Paul appear to reject this distinction, proposing instead that every aspect of our historical existence – including the straightforwardly empirical – should be understood in mystical-subjectivist terms. Thus:

I see a number of informed people, some of them historians, conclude on the basis of their memory of the Occupation and the documents they have accumulated, that Pétain had many virtues. Whence the obvious conclusion that “memory” cannot settle any issue. There invariably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name that what took place took place, and to do so because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of a situation requires it. This is certainly Paul’s conviction: the debate about the Resurrection is no more a debate between historians and witnesses in his eyes than that about the existence of the gas chambers is in mine. We will not ask for proofs or counterproofs. We will not enter into debate with erudite anti-Semites, Nazis under the skin, with their superabundance of “proofs” that no Jew was ever mistreated by Hitler. (p. 44)

Badiou argues here that the existence or non-existence of the Nazi death camps is not an empirical question – that it is not a question answerable by historical research; rather, one needs simply to make a subjective choice, and have (mystical or religious) faith in the reality or non-reality of Auschwitz, just as Christians must have faith in the reality or non-reality of Christ’s resurrection. This is a profoundly wrong, irrationalist and sinister opinion. I have absolutely no time for anyone who believes this.

NB: This piece about Badiou by Daniel Bensaïd is really good.